Kenneth Hall Optimistic
State Sen. Kenneth Hall is more confident of the future of East St. Louis than any time in the 22 years he has been a state senator. "I think we've turned a corner now," he said with unabashed optimism.
"I feel good in this respect. At long last we're going to have a fiscal officer who will oversee our finances, the money that comes from the state to this city, and he'll have the oversight of five people, I think very good people. I think we've turned the corner now where you're going to have fiscal responsibility."
He was talking primarily about the money from the $34 million state "bailout bill" which he championed through the legislature, which was blocked for some time by State Rep. Wyvetter Younge with additional demands, and opposed verbally by Mayor Carl Officer. As a leader of the black caucus and its ties with the Chicago vote, and as the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, the 72-year-old Hall had the clout to convince a skeptical legislature that it needed to pass the bill. But it would not without a unanimous consent from the mayor, the council, and most importantly, the member of the House representing the district, Rep. Wyvetter Younge.
"If any money comes to this city, it's going to be money that's going to be spent properly, and I think it will be a boon to this community. So, it's long needed. I see maybe a resurgence of this city, along with the State Community College, with the proper people in place, bouncing back to be a catalyst also. The legislature is very unhappy with the situation now, but I see us correcting a lot of those things (that give the city an image of fiscally irresponsibility) and I have confidence we're going to emerge."
The State Community College has a new board president, Warrington Hudlin, who was helpful in getting the college established, and is seeking a new college president. "Can you imagine, after 20 years those fellows still don't have their act together," Hall had commented a few weeks earlier while he was battling for passage of the bailout. The college was established by special legislation authored by Hall, the only one in the state that was directly state supported. It has a new campus, but enrollment has dwindled.
Before the bailout bill was passed, Hall had expressed fear that the people of East St. Louis would accept high taxes, limited police and fire protection and decaying streets as the best they could have, and his concern over the dearth of leadership and the unwillingness of those' who could make a difference to be politically active.
Hall is a "different!' black leader than most. He was a friend and political associate of the last white mayor, Alvin G. Fields, and Fields once told Hall that he was Fields' choice to be the first black mayor of the city. Hall also was the choice of the county Democratic party, but Hall was happy in the legislature. He was raised in the Catholic faith, very close to the church, a marked minority in black East St. Louis. He is widely accepted by the white power structure, and when members talk about the "good blacks" they know in East St. Louis, Hall's is likely to be the first name off their tongues. But he walks his own road. He has few good words for Wyvetter Younge, whom he sees as almost scuttling the bailout bill, nor Mayor Carl Officer, whom he sees as abrogating the authority of the Aldermanic Council in attempting one-man rule of the city, and failing to provide fiscal integrity for the city. Officer, who is not inhibited in name-calling, places Hall with Aldermanic Council President Oliver Hendricks among his list of foes whom he charges would sell out the black interest of the city.
Hall is a hard worker at whatever he does. During school breaks over Christmas and the like he worked as a dining car waiter from Chicago to San Francisco and to Los Angeles. "A quarter looked as big as a cart wheel in those days, and I worked hard for tips." Out of high school, he worked as a timekeeper and first aid man for the Works Progress Administration, under Franklin Delano Roosevelt's presidency, for $81 a month. He was elected to the East St. Louis Park Board for two six-year terms, for 11 years he was a deputy sheriff. He worked for the Aluminum Co. of America Research Division in the "miniature plant" located behind the now-gutted research headquarters building. He served two terms in the house, 20 years in the senate with two terms to go. He and his wife have raised four sons, all successful.
The walls of Hall's East St. Louis office are covered with pictures of Hall and distinguished Americans from presidents to prize fighters and other athletes. He has a number of scrap books with clippings about his successes as a legislator and community leader over his 24 legislative years. They virtually are a history of the city.
Hall says he is sometimes kidded by fellow legislators about living in East St. Louis. He said that he tells them that once you have drunk the waters of East St. Louis, you can never leave - you always come back.
Hall is concerned about the revenue stream required to repay the states "bailout bill" loans. The city was guaranteed a riverboat gambling license to help repay the loans. Since the riverfront is in the city's tax increment financing (TIF) district, and parallel retail development of restaurants will add disproportionately more to that revenue stream than otherwise possible (See interview with Bob Vancil).
Hall thinks Target 2000 and its chairman Willie Nelson are "on the ball" with the planned housing development, involving TIF, and that the plan to finance a new housing plant is all right, but he would prefer to see an Illinois firm handling it rather than a Philadelphia company.
The high cost of sewage treatment by the American Bottoms plant is untenable and something is going to have to be done by the state or federal governments. "It was a federal program forced on us," he said. The bill for disposal is twice what the residents pay for the water. "It's got to be looked into." It is on his agenda.
Light rail will be important to East St. Louis too, he said. And when the bailout is fully in place, "the policemen will get cars that will run and there will be more police and fire manpower... We have to do something to bring insurance rates down so people can afford to live here.
"For the first time I am beginning to be optimistic, for the first time since I have been in the legislature. I think we're trying to see some light at the end of the tunnel."
Hall said he missed the old Metro-East Journal, and the city needs a newspaper that will serve an advocacy role. During the bailout legislative deadlock, the Belleville News-Democrat played an important role, he said, and when it editorially asked "Where are the people?" to support the bailout bill, the people came forth. "It really stirred some people," he said. "There's nothing like the press, and I told them so."